Watching old films on the big screen is a form of travelling through time.
Why don’t we have revival theatres? The US has them. Among the coming attractions at the Texas Theatre in Dallas is a screening of The Fly, to commemorate its 30th anniversary. The point isn’t that the film can be seen on TV. It’s to celebrate with other fans. At one time, we did not need revival theatres. New releases would open in just a few major halls, and slowly make their way to the minor theatres, which, during the wait, screened older films. Sometime in the 1990s, at Sharda Talkies, Mumbai, I saw Nargis in Mother India, shouldering the most iconic plough in all of filmdom. Sometime in the 1980s, at Chennai’s Theyagaraja theatre, I saw MGR execute a bhangra with both left feet in the riotously entertaining Kudiyirundha Kovil. As for The Guns of Navarone, I’ve lost count of the number of times, the number of cinema halls. Every time there was a lull in releases, theatre owners enlisted this adventure. The audio would hiss and spit. Splotches of chemical degeneration would conspire to mar Gregory Peck’s handsomeness. No one cared.
We didn’t care because we didn’t know any better – all this Dolby-digital-whatchamacallits was still the stuff of science fiction. We didn’t care because we didn’t have YouTube, which, had we heard about it then, would have sounded like a boon-dispensing god from one of our epics: think of a song, a movie, and ye shall have it! We didn’t care because we liked being in a time machine, which is what old films are. A couple of years ago, one of the biggest draws at the Berlin film festival was a Technicolor retrospective from Hollywood. One of the technicians who worked on the restoration of the Marilyn Monroe-starrer Niagara said before the screening, “If you’ve seen Niagara on DVD or on Netflix, you’ll see it today on 35mm film,” the way audiences saw it in 1953. He spoke of “texture” and “grain.” Today’s kids, weaned on ultra-sharp digital-quality DVDs, will probably laugh, but it’s the difference between seeing images on your smartphone and flipping through yellowing photographs in a family album. It’s not just about remembering people and places. It’s about recalling an era. The yellow is really amber, preserving a time that now exists only in those photographs. And memory.
The closest we have to the revival-theatre experience, these days, is the re-release of an older film, usually with audiovisual bells and whistles. A few years ago, we got Sholay in 3-D, with Sanjeev Kumar’s shawl whipping across our faces. Last week, we got Suriyakanthi, Muktha Srinivasan’s domestic melodrama from 1973, with Muthuraman and Jayalalithaa. Despite claims of a digital makeover, the print looked like a YouTube video stretched over the big screen, but a dilapidated time machine is still a time machine. Scenes from the film took me back to when “job typing” was still a way to earn a livelihood. When the highest salary in a cork-making company was Rs. 250 (and the monthly expenses for a middle-class family of five came to Rs. 500). When songs were heard on a NELCO Apsara radio. When newspaper headlines were about the Vietnam War. When killing time meant playing with a circular, palm-sized plastic-mould maze, tilting it this way and that, trying to get five metal balls into the cavity at the centre. My favourite was this bit: after a taxi ride, a passenger discovers she only has a two-rupee note. She wonders if the driver has change.
But beyond these nostalgic nudges, there isn’t much in the film, which isn’t even cinema – it’s the kind of crudely photographed stage play that was popular then. This, of course, is another kind of time travel, revisiting the days when audiences didn’t demand anything more – so you could argue that the reason we don’t have revival theatres is that so few of our films are worth preserving and restoring. But even bad films are worth reviving, because they’re not just a pop-cultural record but a cultural record. Suriyakanthi is the story of a middle-class housewife who begins to work as a saleswoman in order to supplement the household’s income, and to see the film today is to be reminded of how the same material can seem so different in the hands of a different filmmaker, working in a different language, in a radically different style.
I refer to Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar. (Now, there’s a film truly worthy of a revival.) Take the scenario where the insecure husband cannot deal with the fact that he’s not the provider anymore, and tells the wife she has to quit. The Tamil version bases the wife’s reaction on external (melodramatic) factors. Her sister-in-law is pregnant and needs to be married off, soon, to her boyfriend, whose father demands a dowry. The wife refuses to quit only because she needs to arrange for the dowry. But in the Bengali film, the distraught wife asks the husband, “I’m doing such good work. Is that bothering you?” Stepping out of the house has reconfigured her DNA. She doesn’t want to quit because she’s begun to enjoy the sense of accomplishment, the fact that she doesn’t have to depend on her husband to buy their son a toy pistol. These emotions are certainly a reflection of the time (1963). They are also timeless. A great film can do that. It can make yellowing photographs feel like they were clicked on a smartphone.
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